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T A D    S T R Y K E R
August 30, 2009

Just one step.

How big is just one step in major college football?

One step makes a big difference. Imagine Erwin Swiney closing on Texas receiver Wane McGarity just one step quicker and knocking down Major Applewhite’s third-down pass in the end zone on Oct. 31, 1998, forcing a field goal. Imagine the Huskers winning in overtime and seeing their 47-game home winning streak continue for four more seasons.

Imagine a Nebraska defensive backfield where everyone plays just one step faster. Rickey Thenarse can. In fact, the senior safety says that will become a reality this fall.

Watch for the secondary to take a step up in year two of the Pelini brothers’ version of the Blackshirts, because it seems that the game is slowing down for them.

Last year, everyone was still learning the defense when the season started, Thenarse said. In fact, he said, the redshirt freshmen on this year’s roster are mentally ahead of where the starters were going into last year’s season-opener against Western Michigan.

“Now that we know the defense, we’ll be at full speed every play, not hesitating, and you know, taking more chances on routes and disguising our coverages better,” Thenarse said after a practice late in fall camp. “That’s going to allow us to play at high speed and play at a high level.

“Everyone is a step faster, and you can see it. Everyone out there is confident. We’re all talking, communicating. The coaches are not coaching on the same themes. They’re not coaching us on mistakes; they’re coaching us to do better.”

It was evident that the secondary was often in damage-control mode during the 2008 season. That’s one of the reasons a 9-4 finish was so remarkable. There was still so much room for improvement on that defense.

The improvement has arrived, including P.J. Smith, Courtney Osborne and Austin Cassidy at safety to push Larry Asante and Thenarse. At cornerback, there is juco transfer Dejon Gomes, sophomore Alfonzo Dennard and true freshman Andrew Green to push Prince Amukamara, Anthony West and Anthony Blue. “There’s a lot of competition out there,” says Thenarse.

Throw in junior Eric Haag at safety and nickel back, and sophomore Lance Thorell adding quality depth, and you’ve got a real combination of experience and speed. You can see a defensive backfield with a future.

Sure. It’s possible that the Blackshirts will be significantly better while the offense takes a step back, with no net gain. That remains to be seen. But it would appear that Nebraska is much closer to being able to play the attacking-style defense that Bo Pelini teams are famous for, with cornerbacks coming off the edge and safeties charging up the gut to make quarterbacks’ lives miserable.

A faster team also will make a big difference in the kicking game – one area where athletic but relatively inexperienced players can shine. Nebraska has a lot of players who fit that description. And Thenarse, who has been a mainstay on special teams during his first three years at NU, is more than satisfied to give his job on the punt block team to the young bucks so he can concentrate on defense. Right?

Not a chance.

Is special teams going to be a part of your senior season, Rickey?

“It’s going to be a big part. It’s going to be a huge part. I think I’m going to have my best year on special teams.

“I love special teams. It comes easy, just going one-on-one with guys. I’ve got an advantage. I’m physical, athletic, and I just want it more than the other guy, so nine out of 10 times, I’m going to win that battle. That plays to my strengths, you know, so special teams is great for me.”

It’s also a way for him to win a job in the NFL, where 53-man rosters mandate that defensive backs who are also great special-teams players have a much better chance of landing a job.

But that’s a step away for Thenarse. First, we get to see how far some extra speed will take the Huskers this year.


Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive